Monday, August 8, 2011

"Share and Be Aware" and falling down on a bike

It’s late summer and the bike education programs are in full swing. The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin has a new long range program advocating that motor vehicles “share the road” with bicycles. The “Share and be Aware” educational program by the bicycle Federation of Wisconsin has put out a video explaining the campaign, plus a few advertisments.

I assume the purpose of Share and Be Aware is to make life safer for bike users and pedestrians. Since crashes with motor vehicles are the main cause of injuries for bike users it makes sense to direct the safety campaign at drivers, though parts of it are about educating bike users in the best way to use a bike in traffic.

It’s interesting to take a look at just how safe bike use is. The Wisconsin DOT put out the facts in this PDF

In it the DOT states
The number of bicyclists killed has remained steady for the past 20 years.
If we take into consideration that bike use has increased by over 40% in the same period of time this is actually good news. Injuries have actually gone down by 40% since 1990. The increase in bike use is without a doubt because of better infrastructure. Add to this
Fatalities per Exposure Hour (Data compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc.)
Motor vehicle travel: .47 
Bicycle travel: .26
This shows that bike users have just a bit over half the injury rate per hour of use that a motor vehicle user has. Using a bike is indeed one of the safer modes of personal travel out there. Anther interesting statistic is that children sustain between ⅓ and ½ of all bicycle injuries each year. If we subtract that from the above numbers it’s clear that using a bike for an adult is a relatively safe activity.

The real question is, with all we know about the safety of bicycle use, why is it that people perceive bike use to be unsafe? If my memory serves me right 40% of people would like to ride a bike for commuting but do not because of safety concerns. It seems to be at odds with reality.

I’ve been biking in Madison for over 30 years and have never been in an crash….. but there sure have been some close calls. I’ve been cut off by motor vehicles doing a right turn and had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, been buzzed by vehicles driving within inches of me, and need I even mention car doors swinging open. Add to that I’ve been intentionally harassed to many times.

The subjective safety level is a very different story from the actual safety level. This is coming from someone who bikes mostly in the Isthmus area of Madison. With over 7% of all trips on the isthmus made on a bike it would be a good guess that the Madison isthmus is bike central for the state of Wisconsin.

I can understand why many folks do not ride a bike and chose other modes of transport. There is little joy to be found in the standard bike lane on a busy street in urban areas. Rubbing shoulders with SUV’s, city buses, and inattentive drivers can be waring, and does not inspire people to dust off there bicycle. The push for more education will do little to change that.

In order to get more folks on bikes what is needed is to make bike users feel safe, comfortable, and dare I say relaxed riding a bike. The typical middle aged working person has long since given up on the hassle of biking. And who can blame them. Mixing up motor vehicles with bicycles that are less than 1/100 the weight is simply not a good idea if you want people to actually use bikes. A painted white line on the street is not nearly enough.

David Hembrow wrote an excellent piece on bike safety
He explores the idea of three different types of safety, actual, subjective, and social. All are essential in getting people to chose a bike as a mode of transport. The latter two are what has been dismissed by much of the current thinking on bike infrastructure in this country, though that’s beginning to change.

David Hembrow states
No-one will do anything that feels too dangerous to them. Everyone wants their child to be safe and their partner to be safe. That's why so many journeys which ought to be cycleable are made by car. There is no point in arguing with people's decisions, or ridiculing them. The person making the decision to use a car has made it for quite logical reasons. Their level of confidence about cycling in the conditions around you is not the same as your own.
What to do... If you want people who do not cycle to take up cycling, then the right thing to do is to campaign for or design in road conditions which make cycling into an appealing option. That is what the Dutch have done. Everywhere. It is the key to the high cycle usage and high cycle safety figures.
I particularly like the statement below
Don't make the mistake of thinking that subjective safety is a concern only for inexperienced cyclists. No-one suffers from cycling being pleasant. Steps to increase the subjective and social safety of cyclists lead to a better cycling experience for all.
He goes on to explain the type of infrastructure needed to increase bike use.

That’s in sharp contrast to the Platinum Bicycling Committee Report that claimed that the reason people don’t use bike lanes on arterial streets is because they are either young or inexperienced. That statement is an insult to peoples rational decision as to why they do not use a bike.

All one needs to do to get a feel for subjective safety is to take a bike ride on any of the heavily used mixed use paths in Madison. People know what they like, and all the coxing and prodding out there isn’t going to change that. The Share and Be Aware program will have little to no effect on getting people to use bikes. It’s a feel good educational program that has failure written all over it. If anything it's a distraction from the real problem.

There is only one proven method to increase bike use in urban areas, and that is better infrastructure. That means separated cycle tracks on all high speed and/or high volume streets. Without that people will continue to make the choice of using a car instead of a bicycle. The role of education is very limited in what it will, or can do.

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